Text and Interview: Monica Uszerowicz
Photo: Shawn Brackbill
The opening track on The Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut, The Velvet Underground & Nico, is like the dawning of day, twinkly and languid. The celesta-inflected “Sunday Morning,” for all its sweetness, was almost about paranoia (“Watch out, the world’s behind you”), but when I heard it as a teenager, I didn’t notice. It was too dreamy.
On Gentlewoman, Ruby Man, a new covers album by English singer-songwriter Flo Morrissey and American musician Matthew E. White, “Sunday Morning” is fuller, chugging along with doo-ba-doo-ba harmonizing, and its charm comes from White’s and Morrissey’s ability to upend the interaction of the vocals: this time, it’s a female voice in the foreground. That’s what special about Gentlewoman, Ruby Man’s entirety: the duo’s takes on songs like Frankie Vallie’s “Grease” and Frank Ocean’s “Thinking Bout You” are lovely, layered versions of the originals, but it’s their singular communication that stands out. They sound like two hummingbirds in dialogue, even when one remains in the background.
After developing an e-mail correspondence, Morrissey and White met each other in London at a Lee Hazlewood tribute concert, where the two covered “Some Velvet Morning.” Their duet flowered into a friendship and, eventually, Gentlewoman, Ruby Man, a ten-track-album, narrowed down from 700 songs and transformed into something crystalline and lush. We spoke to Morrissey about the collaboration, and the rare experience of channeling and interpreting another’s feelings through your own voice.
How did you meet Matthew? I read that you met him at a Lee Hazlewood tribute concert, but he also reached out upon reading about you.
Exactly, we met through both of these—Matthew and I were written about on a post in the Guardian newspaper about my first album and his second, and then he reached out on Twitter saying he liked what he heard. I was a fan of his work before and then we kept up a correspondence for a year. Then the Barbican in London were putting on an event in tribute to Lee Hazlewood and we were asked to duet “Some Velvet Morning,” and the idea really came from there. It all felt and continues to feel very natural, which can be rare to find, so we both knew doing this project felt so right!
When you work alone, there’s an opportunity to zone out, go out of body. Working in collaboration with someone—are you able to be as meditative as you might be while alone? Are there other moments of “zen?”
I’ve found, this past year, it’s been really valuable and important for me to work with people—learning to let go of the ego and see the growth of being vulnerable in a creative process and, in so doing, we have a reflection. I’ve found my strengths and things I’m not naturally as tuned into and that sometimes, especially now more than ever in the world, it’s necessary to reach out to people and come together to use each one of our strengths to make something whole.
I have had to use my more grounded and pragmatic side in collaboration, which has its place for sure, and makes me know my own voice more, because your opinion is being called upon differently when making a song by yourself. It has taught me that even these moments of having to discuss the songs can be “zen,” and as spiritual an experience I may have on my own while creating. It’s different, but it all comes from the same place in the end.
You’ve said before that songwriting acts as a kind of diary for you. I appreciate this, because often songwriters can distance themselves from their work. For someone who often delicately bares her soul—do cover songs offer a similarly personal experience?
That’s wonderful to hear. I do feel like a lot of songs connect to me personally, very deeply, but of course, it depends on the song! These ones on the record all spoke to me in some way and I really have to believe and feel what I’m singing. So I wouldn’t have had the capacity to do this record if it was just a project of putting myself in new shoes for the fun of it! However, I do find that by covering songs, it has allowed me to tap into different parts of my personality and voice than I may normally know how to access at first in my own work.
You grew up covering other songs, learning about your own voice and style. What were some of the songs you loved, that you played, and that affected you the most?
I love this question! “Irish Blood, English Heart” by Morrissey—who isn’t related to me! But I would play this song at shows when I first started playing. It has a powerful and strong message and it would often surprise people that I would sing a pretty intense piece amidst my own songs about love. “When” by Vincent Gallo and “Moon River” always get me.
Sometimes, especially now more than ever in the world, it's necessary to reach out to people and come together to use each one of our strengths to make something whole.
How did you select the songs for the album—what was special about them? I’m drawn to “Look at What the Light Did Now” because I adore Little Wings.
Matt and I Skyped over the course of four months and had a selection of about 700 songs at first, from classic duets to specific songs each of us resonated with and felt intuitively would be good for this project. Each of the songs have their own story about why we picked it, but the process was surprisingly easy. Neither of us felt we had to compromise. I think it shows our connected tastes and characters and to me, even if the selection seems diverse, they have the same foundation at the core.
With “Look at What the Light Did Now,” Matthew toured with Kyle Field of Little Wings as his first ever tour and that song was played every night and hit a chord with him. I’d never heard of it before this record and think it is one of my favorites; it literally makes me feel “light”.
Can you tell me about choosing to cover “Sunday Morning?” I love that you sing much of the song. I also like how it’s more blatantly upbeat than the original.
I am a fan of The Velvet Underground and Matt wanted to tap into a bit of “Nico” for me, so we knew whatever song it was, we would make one Velvet on the record. Ironically, she didn’t sing with them on this song, but instinctively it ended up being the one we went for. I love how Matt wanted to produce this song and access the fiercer side to my voice. Ha, that sounds funny…But part of me is very much “that.” We joked a lot that I am sometimes boxed into being a flower-child and people perceive me a certain way. I certainly connect to those things but this song encapsulates where I am now. And that’s fun.